Monday, December 29, 2014

The End of 2014

Let's talk about kendo!

This year has been an interesting one.  A lot has been happening, mostly in my personal life, but throughout it all I was able to keep a fairly regular kendo schedule.  I feel good about the progress I made this year, even though it's been very subtle to me.  Not a lot of giant breakthroughs or new insights into anything, but a lot of smoothing out and polishing what I know, and trying to improve the mental aspects of my kendo.  I believe, for the most part, that I've been doing a good job of it, although in practice I definitely notice that I get hit a lot more.  That's ok, though!  Practice is there for a reason and if I'm not getting hit I'm not doing it right.  One of the things I've been focusing on is trying to act with a purpose.  Not throwing attacks out here and there without thought, but really trying to focus and do everything purposely.  My attacks have become fewer, for the time being, but I feel like more and more of them are being done because I chose to and not because I jumped the gun or threw something out randomly.  It's a good feeling to me , as I feel like everything has more purpose now, whether my attack was successful or not.  This is definitely something I want to work on more in the new year.

My health and fitness have been a rollercoaster this year. Hopefully in the new year I can buckle down and really work on that.  I have a problem with being super motivated at first, and then having that motivation decrease and decrease as time goes on.  I think a lot of people can relate to that, but it won't stop me from putting it back on my list.  Trying and failing isn't a bad thing, as long as I can get up, dust myself off and try again.  I'm at a better place than I was at the beginning of this year, which is good, but I still need to work for more improvement so that I can take myself and my kendo to higher levels.

As far as technique goes, I worked on a few shortcomings that I had this year, and started to incorporate them into my practices.  I wouldn't say anything is stellar at the moment (kaeshi dou, for example) but at least I'm getting more familiar with them and less hesitant to use them when the opportunity arises.  I still have my go-to techniques that I use and work on and refine, but in my opinion it's always good to have a wide range of techniques at my disposal so that I can use them in various situations and with various people and styles of kendo. One of these days, way way way into my future, I hope to be able to release these techniques as second nature, without thought and without hesitation.  But to get there I need to be familiar with them and experienced enough using them that I'm comfortable.

So, just a short recap of some things that I focused on this year.  There will be more training, more learning, more breaking down and building up of techniques for me, but it's good to know that I feel like I'm stronger now than I was a year ago, and I'm going to start off 2015 on a good note.  To anyone that is reading this, I hope you have an excellent new year and keep training hard, because I'll be doing the same!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Kent Taikai 2014 - The Power of Ian Morgan and The Rise of Spokane Kendo

http://tinyurl.com/k3ms8lw
Photo courtesy of James O'Donnell
Two weeks ago the Spokane team and I participated in the 18th Annual Kent Taikai.  What a time we had, too!  A few surprises, a few gasps, laughs, and loads of spirit and energy throughout the entire day of kendo.  We had competitors strewn across the 1-3 Kyu, 1-3 Dan, 1-3 Dan Seniors, and Women's divisions, and overall our members did extremely well.  I was able to cheer on and witness a couple of our members in the seniors group take both first and third place, and our women's and kyu competitors do some excellent kendo in their matches.  My division, and the bulk of my dojo mates, weren't fighting until later that afternoon, in the 1-3 Dan group.

The afternoon came, and finally I was up.  My first opponent was Chaney, from Sno-King.  I don't know if he remembers but I fought him in my first appearance at this taikai, four years ago in the team division.  We ended in a 1-1 tie then, but I knew that this match would have to end with a clear winner.  I readied myself, we stepped in and bowed, and the match began.  I took my time, felt out the court and my opponent a bit before engaging.  Chaney has much more experience than I do, both in the dojo and on the court, so I knew I couldn't take the match lightly.  I don't take any of my matches lightly, honestly, but I knew I had to be in top form to walk away with a win here.  We engaged each other a few times but nothing landed for either of us for quite a while.  About halfway into the match I was able to take the first point - kote.  We restarted and I stepped back a few times before launching a surprising men from to-ma to take the second point and the win.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

 The first match is always the roughest for me.  It's definitely a weakness I have, one that I'm working on, but fortunately I was able to get through the first one in high spirits.  I watched the next match to determine who I would be fighting in the second round, and my opponent happened to be the oldest DeJong girl.  The DeJongs, in my opinion, have some of the smoothest kendo around, and I knew I was in for another tough fight.  I fought her sister a few tournaments back, so I knew I'd have to stay on my toes and not relax at all, or else she would definitely take advantage of my lack in focus. The match started, and we stepped in and got underway.  There was a lot of pressure from both sides, and she was quick to try and exploit anything that I gave her.  On my end, though, I was also staying alert and focused, and was able to fend off most of her attacks.  There were a lot of close calls on both sides, but we ended the round at 0-0, which forced us into encho (overtime).  The match started again and we both fought hard for that minute of encho.  She threw a lot at me, I threw a lot at her, and again we found ourselves at a standstill.  We had one last encho to go before they'd call hantei (judges' decision).  Again we fought hard, but again we ended without a point being scored.  I gave it my all, so I knew no matter who the judges deemed the winner I would walk out with my head high.  As fate would have it, I came out with my head high and the judges' decision. 

Final Score: 0-0 (Ruiz by Hantei)

I made it to the quarter finals!  And I'd fought two tough opponents to get there.  My next opponent is someone that I actually thought, in the back of my head, that I'd end up fighting; my buddy Ian, from Kent.  I've mentioned him before, as I've had a few matches with him (most of which ended in a tie).  This would be the fourth time I'd face him at a tournament, although the first time in an individual match as opposed to teams.  He was looking good that day so I had a dreadful feeling that I might be playing the mouse to his cat, but I mustered up my confidence and focus, stepped into the court and got it under way.  First thing about Ian - he's quick.  He's got great shinai speed and he can move in and out of distance quickly.  I don't know if I'm quite as fast with my shinai or my footwork, but I did a good job of giving him trouble throughout the match.  We both had a few close calls for points, but nothing that stuck, and at the end of three minutes we were tied.  The first encho started, and we both stepped in and threw what we had at each other.  One thing I noticed, and that I really appreciated in this match, is that neither of us did hiki waza.  I've actually been working on hiki waza lately, especially hiki men, but chose to keep things straight forward with Ian the entire time.  Maybe this was a bad idea, but it made the match feel a bit more honorable, for lack of a better term.  Again we found ourselves at the end of the first encho with no points, so we went into second encho.  Again we both threw what we had at each other, but the end came when Ian finally slipped in with a men strike that connected.  We bowed out, and I thanked him for the great match.  It was probably my favorite match of the entire day, even though I lost.

Final Score: 1-0 (Morgan in Encho)

I was able to watch Ian fight a couple more great matches, ending in a final match against Seth, one of my own teammates from Spokane,  That match went far into encho, too, before Ian was finally able to secure a win and take first in our division.  The team matches would start soon after, but I was definitely happy for my friend, even though he had to go through myself and a few of my dojo mates to take first.

Our first team match was against Sno-King B.  We'd talked strategy beginning the night before, and our lineup ended up putting me in the fukusho position (fourth on the team, out of five people).  I'd never fought in this spot, and we all felt that it would be the best spot for me.  Depending on how the other matches went, I'd either be stress-free (having the match won for us by the first three guys) or I would be a pivotal point for a win or to keep us going.  Things went well in the first three matches, though, as our first three guys ended up winning their matches.  My match came, and I found myself against Chu, a yudansha from Sno-King that I'd never met before.  Since I'd never seen her I wasn't quite sure what to expect, so I started out fairly conservatively so I could find out how she moved and how she fought.  We exchanged a few attacks, and she came close to taking my kote a couple times, but I was able to score the first point with a hiki men out of nowhere.  We restarted and I found my next point soon after as she came in and I side-stepped for another hiki men.  Our last match ended in a tie, 1-1, but we were already on our way to the semi-finals.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 4-0 (Spokane A)

The next match was against the team from UW, which included a good mix of strong, young guys and gals.  We'd need to step it up a bit to make sure they didn't run away with an early advantage over us.  Again, our first three guys went out and took wins for our team, with Seth fighting really well in the third spot against one of their sandans.  I stepped up, again with little pressure to win or lose.  My opponent was my friend Van.  She's still in the 1-3 kyu division, but she's sharp and I've seen her take out many a more experienced opponent with her kote.  We began the match and I made sure to watch out for that kote.  She did use it on me quite a few times, whenever she saw that opening, but I was unable to counter it with anything good.  I was able to fend her off for most of the match, and finally my opportunity came when I launched a kote of my own that landed, giving me the first point.  We rest and fought hard again, but neither of us were able to capitalize on the other after that.  The match ended, we bowed out and I walked away with another win for our team.  The last match also ended in a win for our team, putting us into the semi-finals.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 5-0 (Spokane A)

The next match, as we found out, would be against Bellevue B.  We watched them fight a close match against Obukan, but they were able to step away with the win.  We all bowed in, and cheered on our teammates.  Our first guy came out strong, scoring a kote early in the match.  Unfortunately he was unable to keep that point to himself, as his opponent came back with a men to tie things up.  The second match also ended in a tie, with our member and his opponent unable to score anything on each other.  The third match turned things in our favor, as our member was able to take it 1-0 to give us the advantage.  When my match came I knew I'd have to pull out a win to secure it for us and not put the burden at the very end.  I stepped in, and had another opponent I'd never fought before.  Drackert, from Bellevue.  We started and I came out strong, throwing a quick men her way and rushing in to avoid a counter attack.  We traded blows a bit and I kept the pressure up and was able to score a men about a minute into the match.  We restarted, and I fought to keep the point without giving up one in return.  The end came when I stepped in and scored kote as she brought her hands up to block.  That win put us over the top, sending our team into the finals.  With our final match as a tie, we stepped off the court and into the finals.  Our opponents would be a team that beat us in the finals a couple years back - Sno-King A.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)
Final Score 2-0 (Spokane A)

Here we were, the finals.  I'd been on our A team for the past 4 years, and each time we made it to the finals.  Each time we also took home second place.   This year I was hoping that would change.  Our opponents were Sno-King A, a team we'd fought many times in the past, and lost to on one occasion in the finals.  Things got underway, with our first member fighting and taking an early lead, and win, with a kote to set us ahead early.  Our second member fought hard, but his opponent took a kote of his own late into the match to end it in their favor.  We went into the third match evened out, and that match ended in a 0-0 tie.  My match was up, and my opponent was, once again, Chaney.  I had a plan, I had a previous win over him that day, and I knew I needed to not lose this match to keep us alive.  We bowed in and the match began.  I came out hard, pressuring and launching attacks when I perceived an opening.  Chaney, however, was ready for them, and was able to neutralize me quite well.  I had a few close calls, but nothing that got all of the flags to go up.  We were deadlocked for most of the match, neither of us able to get that point over the other.  The three minutes passed, and we found ourselves at a tie.  I was a little disappointed, but not for how I fought.  I was disappointed that I had left it up to our taisho, our team captain, to get a win or end at a tie to force us into sudden death.  He fought hard, but was unable to take a point or an advantage.  When the match was over, we found ourselves in a 1-1 tie with Sno-King.  There wold be a sudden death match.

We decided to send out Seth, a strong, young sandan, against M. Scott from Sno-King, another strong, young sandan. It would definitely be a good match.  They both fought hard, Seth flying around the court, and his opponent answering with quick moves and counters of his own.  They seemed pretty evenly matched, and I'm sure we were all on pins and needles the entire time.  The match went minute after minute, until right around the 3-minute mark.  Seth pressured in and his opponent went for a kote that wasn't there.  Seth saw this and came flying in with a men strike that landed, giving him and our team the win.

Final Score 0-0
Team Score: 2-1 (Spokane A in sudden death)

We'd done it!  Our team had fought well, both individually and together, and come out on top.  The final match was definitely one to remember, as I think we had everyone on the edge of their seats throughout, with a finish that was fitting for all the build-up.  I think the one that that I appreciated the most this time around, and others echoed, is that we really fought as a team.  We talked strategy in our team lineup the night before; we talked about the teams that we were going to face, and the individuals in those teams to find strengths and weaknesses;  we evaluated our own performance in between matches to see what we needed to focus on;  and we supported each other throughout the entire day.  This was not just five individuals coming together to fight, this was a team coming together to fight and I think it showed.  I, for one, am not going to sit back and relax, though.  I want to work even harder.  I found many things that I need to improve, and a few things that I'm doing well that I still need to polish up.  I was lucky enough to get a lot of feedback throughout the weekend from DeJong Sensei, which I have shared in part with my teammates but would like to share more of at a later time.  That is the reason I compete.  Winning is nice and feels good, but I definitely don't win all the time. Not even close.  My main reasons are to test and improve myself.  This is the fire to my blade, and I use it to temper myself and make myself stronger.  But, that being said, it is nice to allow myself a little happiness in the fact that we were able to fight and come out on top, as a team.